The AFC released on Friday last a letter to the President of Guyana in which it advised that it will be tabling in the National Assembly a motion of no confidence in the government. The reason stated in the letter is that the AFC finds it “wholly unacceptable” that the government is spending from the Consolidated Fund in excess of the amount approved by the National Assembly under the Appropriations Act.
Under article 106(6) the constitution provides that “the Cabinet including the President shall resign if the Government is defeated by a vote of a majority of all the elected members of the National Assembly on a vote of confidence.” Sub-article (7) states that “notwithstanding its defeat, the Government shall remain in office and shall hold an election within three months…”
The complaint of the AFC, and indeed of APNU, has been in the public domain for several weeks since the Minister of Finance tabled a Statement of Excess in the National Assembly stating that some $4.5 out of the $37 billion disapproved by the National Assembly last April has since been spent. Over the declared objections of the opposition, and their expressed intention not to support the government, an impassioned debate has erupted over the legality of the expenditure and the meaning of article 218(3) of the constitution on which the government has placed reliance.
In his response to the AFC the President suggested that the basis for bringing the motion is baseless and spurious and repeated that spending by the Minister of Finance is authorized by article 218(3) of the constitution.
He reminded the AFC that it will have to answer the electorate as to the reasons why it has not supported development projects. The President did not extend this to APNU which will have to answer the same questions. The President had previously welcomed the challenge of a no-confidence motion leading to elections, declaring that he was a “warrior.”
APNU has not taken a position on the proposed no-confidence motion by the AFC. Some time ago, however, when there were hints that the government might be calling elections, Opposition Leader David Granger had stated quite clearly that APNU was ready for elections if called. It is not known what considerations would now prevail in determining whether or not to support the AFC’s proposed motion. Surely one factor would have to be the enormous resources which would have to be raised for elections. In the absence of a credible explanation to its financial backers of how elections at this time will resolve the political stalemate in the country, raising adequate funds may pose a problem. More importantly, if APNU contemplates declining support for the motion, it will have to decide what it will tell its supporters when they ask why would APNU want to keep a PPP/C Government in office. If APNU cannot figure out a response to such a question, then we might have an election on our hands.
Article 218(3) of the constitution will now only be relevant in relation to a possible election campaign. The article provides that where it is found that (1) the amount appropriated by the Appropriation Act for any purpose is insufficient, or (2) a need has arisen for expenditure for a purpose for which no amount has been appropriated by the Appropriation Act, or (3) money has been expended for a purpose in excess of the amount appropriated, or (4) for a purpose for which no amount has been appropriated, a supplementary estimate or a statement of excess is to be laid before the Assembly. There is no express authority contained in these words to authorize the Minister of Finance to spend monies, which I assume has been the argument of the opposition. The government no doubt is relying on an implied authority, but it has not yet explained from precisely which words and how such an implied authority is to be extracted. There is also a statement by Chief Justice Chang in the budget case which the government’s relies on as supporting its interpretation of article 218(3). But the statement merely relates to the application of the article and makes no reference to any power of spending that the article might have conferred on the Minister. If there are elections and the issue assumes importance, and is not merely the casus belli for the AFC, the public might be afforded a more detailed explanation of the implications of article 218(3).
The proposed no-confidence motion could not have come as a surprise to the government. In circumstance such as these anywhere in the world, governments do not survive. There is a minority government in office, without a commitment of support from any section of the opposition. There is also no compromise on any significant issue engaging the attention of the National Assembly.
The issue is not merely the elections if they happen; and the AFC will be courting disapproval if they engage in such sustained public foreplay without consummation. The issue is what happens after. There would hardly be a problem if the PPP/C wins an absolute majority. But if the PPP/C wins only a plurality as in 2011, as many observers expect, would the same stalemate and gridlock continue, with more years of marking time and no progress in the country? All right-thinking people will recoil at the thought!